Novella Review: “The Lineman” by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

(Cover by Barry Waldman. F&SF, August 1957.)

Who Goes There?

Walter M. Miller, Jr. is, along with Daniel Keyes and Tom Godwin, probably the most famous one-story author in the history of SF—in the sense that he is basically only known for one story, that is. The reality is that before he started writing the novellas that he would later revise and conjoin to form A Canticle for Leibowitz, Miller was already a prolific short story writer; between 1951 and 1957 he would write something like forty short stories and novellas, unleashing a meteor shower of content. Of course his career in the field would climax with the publication of A Canticle for Leibowitz, to this day a beloved classic which continues to resonate with both secular and religious readers. After 1960, however, Miller would disappear from the field, never having so much as one more word of his fiction published in his lifetime, with his second novel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, being finished by Terry Bisson (at Miller’s request) and released posthumously.

After decades of battling depression and his wartime trauma (he was a bomber crewman during World War II), and with the death of his wife apparently being the last straw, Miller committed suicide in 1996.

“The Lineman” is the final story of Miller’s to be published during that meteor shower of fiction, and is by extension the last thing he saw published that wasn’t related to A Canticle for Leibowitz. This is a new read for me; the only experience I’ve had with Miller previously are his Hugo-winners, those being Leibowitz and his 1955 novella “The Darfsteller.” I might review “The Darfsteller” eventually, who knows? And I do want to read more by Miller, despite not being a Catholic or even a Christian; I find his brand of theological inquiry to be quite affecting at times.

Placing Coordinates

First published in the August 1957 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. You’d think Miller having one of the most famous SF novels of the ’50s under his belt would mean his other fiction would be readily available. You’d also be wrong. As far as single-author collections go you basically have one choice, which is The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr.—and I know what you’re thinking, there’s also Dark Benediction. The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. and Dark Benediction are, as far as I can tell, the same damn collection, with the same damn stories in the same damn order; they’re also seemingly out of print. As far as anthology reprints go we also don’t have many options, though “The Lineman” does appear in David G. Hartwell’s super-chunky anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction, which I’d say is definitely a book to have in your library if you’re a slut for reprint anthologies like myself.

Enhancing Image

Unlike a lot of stories set on the moon, “The Lineman” takes place during the early stages of setting up lunar colonies—not just one colony, but apparently operations headed by several countries, with the U.N. as the referee. Bill Relke is the titular lineman, being part of an American construction crew in the midst of building communication lines. High-speed internet wasn’t a thing yet.

Something to note right off the bat about this novella is that unlike A Canticle for Leibowitz, which only really betrays the time of its conception with references to nuclear armageddon, “The Lineman” eats, lives, breathes, and almost certainly shits the 1950s. Our entirely male construction crewmen talk in ’50s slang, with a heavy dose of hardboiled dialogue that wouldn’t feel out of place in a black-and-white film noir. The conflict of the story is also twofold, and both have to do with the presence of women on the moon during colony-building. Relke has to deal with some goons who work for an underground society that seeks to overturn something called the Schneider-Volkov Act, but that only turns out to be the beginning of his problems.

A ship lands not too far from the site, and it’s not with any known country’s effort to colonize the moon; indeed, it seems to be a commercial vessel. The first twist is that the ship is full of women (“The Ship Is Full of Women” sounds like one of Fritz Leiber’s lesser stories), and the second is that it’s a space-faring whorehouse. Oh yes, our hard-working men are met with French-Algerian “entertainers,” and you know this was written in the mid-’50s because Algeria is still a French colony in the world of the story. Hell, Algeria would no longer be a French colony by 1965, let alone 2065. Since the men (including Relke) have gotten zero pussy for as long as they’ve been on the moon, this causes a big commotion.

Crews being all-male is also given a very of-its-time explanation in the form of the Schneider-Volkov Act. As Joe Novotny, Relke’s superior, explains:

Relke: “Say, Joe, how come they let dames in an entertainment troupe come to the moon, but they won’t let our wives come? I thought the Schneider-Volkov Act was supposed to keep all women out of space, period.”

“No, they couldn’t get away with putting it like that. Against the WP constitution. The law just says that all personnel on any member country’s lunar project must be of a single sex. Theoretically some country—Russia, maybe—could start an all-girl lunar mine project, say. Theoretically. But how many lady muckers do you know? Even in Russia.”

Didn’t Robert Heinlein’s short story “Delilah and the Space-Rigger” already solve this issue?

The master of the ship is, Madame d’Annecy, who turns out to be quite a pragmatic actor. Clearly she’s here for business, and she doesn’t care if the construction guys temporarily jeopardize their own operation to get some tail so long as they’re paying. There is an ulterior motive here, but I’ll save that for spoilers; just saying d’Annecy is one of two major female characters here (which is two more than I was expecting, given the setting), and you sure can’t accuse her of bending the knee for any man who passes her way. The worst thing about d’Annecy, really, is that her business relationship with her girls is shown to be perhaps a little morally dubious (I know what you’re thinking, it’s prostitution, of course it’s morally dubious, but sex work is work). The only way we even figure d’Annecy is on the shady side is by what we know about Giselle, who’s another can of worms.

To make a long story short, Relke and Giselle get stranded together for the middle part of the story, taking refuge in a building which is not quite finished yet. Pressure suits play a big part in “The Lineman,” which makes sense since the moon has no atmosphere, and Giselle (one of d’Annecy’s girls, of course) nearly gets killed before she and Relke have even started to get to know each other. Maybe it’s best that something always conveniently happens to stop them from completing their business transaction, as Relke realizes at one point.

Relke watched her grumpily while she warmed her behind at the oven. She’s not more than fifteen, he decided suddenly. It made him a little queasy. Come on, Joe, hurry.

Uh oh.

In fairness to Relke, he stops getting all touchy-feely with Giselle once it becomes apparent that maybe they shouldn’t be doing this. Not that Giselle would be new to this sort of thing, but safe to say that doesn’t make it not wrong. Relke not only has gotten zero pussy as of late, but is still recovering from his wife leaving him (I imagine the divorce rate for moon men is high), and Giselle… has her own problems. We then come to one of my favorite passages in the story, and one of those things that reminded me that this was, in fact, written by the same guy who wrote A Canticle for Leibowitz.

She was dangerously close to that state of mind which precedes the telling of a life history. He didn’t want to hear it; he already knew it. So she was in a nunnery; Relke was not surprised. Some people had to polarize themselves. If they broke free from one pole, they had to seek its opposite. People with no middle ground. Black, or if not black, then white, never gray. Law, or criminality. God, or Satan. The cloister, or a whorehouse. Eternally a choice of all or nothing-at-all, and they couldn’t see that they made things that way for themselves. They set fire to every bridge they ever crossed—so that even a cow creek became a Rubicon, and every crossing was on a tightrope.

It’s a bit of a downer. You’d think that a religious author like Walter M. Miller Jr. would steer away from the uglier aspects of existence, not to mention the ambivalence of it all, but Miller was not what we’d call a happy camper. Even to compare Miller to other Catholic authors is weird, and to do that I’d also have to venture outside of SFF, since honestly I can hardly think of anyone inside the field off the top of my head. I guess there’s R. A. Lafferty, but none of the Lafferty stories I’ve read have struck me as all that theologically informed. Outside of SFF I’m thinking of Evelyn Waugh, who not so subtly tries to invoke a sense of revelation in the reader by having his characters return to the Church of their childhoods. Then there’s Flannery O’Connor, whose stories are often so grotesque that she basically forces the reader to run in the opposite direction of the horror—the opposite direction being God, naturally.

If Miller tries to invoke revelation, it’s with a good deal of accompanying skepticism, or at least a distinct melancholy that adds bitterness to the moment of divine release. Taken literally, the dilemma of the lunar colonizers being denied one half of the human race seemingly arbitrarily is a bit hard to take, but if taken as a metaphor, with the moon as a purgatorial level of existence, then I can see the logic behind it. Pretty much everyone agrees the Schneider-Volkov Act is something to be repealed (and by today’s standards it sounds nonsensical to boot), but how that problem gets resolved is pretty interesting.

There Be Spoilers Here

There are, to my recollection, three deaths in “The Lineman,” and they’re all accidental and involve pressure suits; they also happen at specific points in the story, each happening in one third of the length. As such, the story begins and ends with a death. The good news is that Madame d’Annecy’s plan to seduce the colonizers with her business will probably result in the Schneider-Volkov Act being repealed, and those secret society goons whom I’ve barely mentioned got their comeuppance. The bad news is that Relke has to let go of Giselle, and he also loses a couple friends by the end of it. Still, he’s the lineman of the crew, and he has to keep building the line—to make the moon a place where people can really live.

It’s during this final scene, where an improvised funeral is held for someone who’s just died in a pressure suit accident, that we get my absolute favorite passage in the story, and it’s something that’s definitely clicked with me—even made me reevaluate what I had been reading to some degree. It’s that powerful, and it also works so well as the end point to Relke’s arc.

Relke looked up slowly and let his eyes wander slowly across the horizon. There were still some meteorites coming in, making bright little winks of fire where they hit into the plain. Deadly stingers out of nowhere, heading nowhere, impartially orbiting, random as rain, random as death. The debris of creation. Relke decided Braxton was wrong. There was a God all right, maybe personal, maybe not, but there was a God, and He wasn’t mean. His universe was a deadly contraption, but maybe there wasn’t any way to build a universe that wasn’t a deadly contraption—like a square circle. He made the contraption, and He put Man in it, and Man was a fairly deadly contraption himself. But the funny part of it was, there wasn’t a damn thing the universe could do to a man that a man wasn’t built to endure. He could even endure it when it killed him. And gradually he could get the better of it. It was the consistency of matched qualities—random mercilessness and human endurance—and it wasn’t mean, it was a fair match.

There’s this old saying in SF about transcendence, and I don’t think it gets brought up anymore. The unique thing about SF is that a transcendent moment can come in a secular context—I’m thinking the ending to A. E. van Vogt’s short story “The Seesaw,” which I think was also reused for The Weapon Shops of Isher. There’s also the ending to 2001: A Space Odyssey, of course. Transcendence in SF comes usually from mankind (be it one person or the whole race) either making contact with something of godlike awesomeness, or becoming that godlike awesomeness. Transcendence is when you meet with something so much greater than yourself that you can’t even calculate it. With “The Lineman” it’s definitely the former, but unlike the vast majority of SF, Miller puts his big transcendental moment in a religious context, with Relke experiencing a religious awakening that sets him on a path of wanting to become not just a man, but a good man.

The ending of “The Lineman” really makes it. I think it’s astounding. As a uniquely science-fictional allegory about mankind getting in touch with the divine part of his nature while in the midst of temptation and horrors, It comes admirably close to striking a fine balance. I’m saying this as someone who doesn’t believe in what Miller believed at the time, and the fact that he would eventually lose both his faith and his life makes the cautious optimism of the ending all the more powerful.

A Step Farther Out

I came out of “The Lineman” a little mixed on it, but ultimately I have to say it was quite effective. Normally when I read something for the sake of reviewing it, I end up with about a page of “notes” on it, which are really just lines from the story that I decided to quote, for good reasons or bad; with “The Lineman” I got about two and a half pages of quotes. When Miller’s on the ball, he’s really on the ball, even if maybe this could’ve been cut down to novelette length. I do have to wonder if the subplot with the secret society was necessary, but then this was back when action narratives were, if not mandatory, then highly incentivized in SF magazine writing. And yet part of what makes “The Lineman” so memorable is how it continually jumps back and forth between pulpy action and genuine metaphysical observations, and how ultimately these two converge.

What fascinates me about Walter M. Miller, Jr. is that he chose to write in a field that was paradoxically both niche and commercial like science fiction, when he could’ve taken his religious concerns and put out some “respectable” literary fiction. That’s the thing, though, isn’t it? “The Lineman” can’t work as literary fiction; its themes are tied intrinsically to its premise. It’s a ruthlessly told story because the moon is a harsh mistress is a ruthless place. The same thing can be said for A Canticle for Leibowitz, which must out of necessity be a post-apocalypse tale in order to justify its inquiries about religion and human nature. It’s weird because science fiction was (and still largely is) stereotypically known for being, if not atheistic or agnostic, then secular; the authors of faith did not tend to write about said faith. Yet Miller, while openly Catholic, did not seek to force conversion upon his readers, but rather to make them think about questions not normally asked in the genre, such as mankind’s place in a universe which is assumed to have a divine overseer—you could say God, Christian or otherwise.

If Miller’s work seems flawed (and everything I’ve read by him so far is prone to a certain excess) then we only have to take the fact that he wrote SF in the ’50s for what it is: the necessary, if imperfect, prerequisite for this artist to find his footing. That Miller stopped writing after 1960, missing out on the New Wave and beyond, speaks perhaps of his fondness for the crossroads which SF in the ’50s found itself at, being more sophisticated than what came in the ’40s but not being as self-consciously experimental as what would come later. Maybe Walter M. Miller Jr. could’ve only done what he did, and say what he wanted to in the way he wanted, during a specific period in the genre’s history. Regardless, we’ll probably never get another voice in the field quite like his.

Nor should we.

See you next time.


4 responses to “Novella Review: “The Lineman” by Walter M. Miller, Jr.”

  1. I couldn’t finish “The Lineman” — and I’m a huge fan of so many of Miller, Jr.’s non-Canticle visions (I like those too of course).

    I wanted to include this on my subversive accounts of space travel/astronauts but….

    “The Hoofer” and “The Death of a Spaceman” are far superior in my opinion (both reviewed on my site). They are far more concise and powerful than this weird jumble of a story.


    • I think it’s too long and has one too many threads, but its best moments are powerful. I can’t help but lament the fact that this was his last non-Canticle story since it feels like he was still refining his craft at this point.


      • I guess I found it far less refined than the two I listed — or stuff like “Crucifixus Etiam” (1953) or “I, Dreamer” (1953) or “Dumb Waiter” (1952). Which are more effective as complete stories than “The Lineman.”


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